Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Over the course of the last several years, Iron Circus Comics has earned a legion of fans and a slew of critical successes by publishing books that appeal to readers who don’t often find themselves represented in the pages put out by traditional publishers. Owner C. Spike Trotman began her company with female- and LGBTQIA-friendly erotica anthologies called Smut Peddler, and the vast majority of the books she puts out continue in that vein, though not all of them have contained erotica. Many of the books are print versions of successful webcomics, bringing the work to an even larger population and creating a strong symbiotic relationship between Iron Circus’ fans and those of the webcomics. Trotman’s strategies are too successful to be ignored, and her business is one of the best examples of how the industry must change to survive.

As The Crow Flies is one of the three books Iron Circus funded this year, and the first to reach readers. It collects the first volume of Melanie Gillman’s excellent webcomic of the same name, a story about an all-girls sleepaway camp and the troop who goes there one summer. The focus is on Charlie, a 13-year-old who feels out of place at the overtly religious and adamantly female-focused camp, isolated from everyone else by race, orientation, and the fact that Charlie clearly has a better understanding of what feminism is than most of the adults running the place. It’s an emotional and intimate comic, restrained in many ways and deeply personal, with a backdrop of stunning mountain vistas.

Gillman’s remarkable skill at portraying the way that microaggressions and small slights can quickly escalate to create an environment that’s emotionally crushing and dangerous is something that is hard to find anywhere else. There are comics, especially webcomics, that portray otherness well, but what sets Gillman’s work apart is their ability to show how we are othered by the people in our lives, and how that creates anxiety and isolation that can be nearly impossible to overcome, especially for young people. Charlie is a complicated, nuanced, and sympathetic protagonist, and this year Gillman added “Pockets” to their website, a short comic about Charlie’s friend Tilly, creating even more emotional weight and investment as they expand Charlie’s world.

Alone, that emotional depth would make Gillman’s work well worth picking up. What makes As The Crow Flies even better is the art. Characters are drawn simply, but without feeling cartoonish or overblown. Expressions and body language are real and weighty instead of outsized. The characters range in shape and size in the way real teen and tween girls do, and it gives the whole book a sense of reality that’s needed to underpin all that emotional weight. Gillman works almost exclusively in colored pencils, and in an age when many comics are drawn digitally it lends texture and color to the art that’s hard to find in most comics. Plant life looks lush and alive, rocks and dirt solid. Gillman doesn’t shy away from showing the effort that goes into hiking up a mountain, but they also make sure that readers understand why so many people do it: the views make it worthwhile.

As The Crow Flies certainly isn’t the only comic about summer camp, but it is one of the only ones that’s honest about how much summer camp can suck, how much being a teenager usually sucks, and how much being from a group that’s marginalized and forgotten only makes the teenager part suck more. It’s a story that embraces the truth of how bad things can be without abandoning kindness, and that’s something comics could use a lot more of.

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